By Shelly Reuben
SHELLY'S WORLD - FICTION:  The Avon Lady

As kids, Danny and I used to place bets on when Ada’s hairpiece would fall off. At dinner, it would shift to the left side of her head during the salad, and then slide toward her chin while we ate the main course. When, during dessert, thin gray strands of her own hair began to emerge from under the wig, we would gape openly while stuffing our mouths full of deep dish apple pie.

Of course, it never actually fell.

Not into the soup, for example, which was one of our more ambitious childhood fantasies. Even yesterday, after I picked up Danny at the airport, he mused somberly. “All my life, I have longed to see one of Ada’s wigs floating majestically in a large tureen surrounded by potato, tomato, and carrot chunks. Perhaps with a sliver of onion nested comfortably in a curl. Now, I never shall.”

I took his hand and pressed it. With equal solemnity, I asked, “What kind of soup?”

“Crawfish chowder.”

“Which wig?”

“Strawberry blond.”

I nodded.

I had waved at him frantically as he walked through airport security. Danny saw me right away and hurried over. I couldn’t read the expression on his face, but he could read mine. He grabbed both of my shoulders and squeezed. That was always his way of comforting me. It meant: Buck up. Be Brave. And I’m your back-up team, all at the same time.

“Hello, Jo Ellen.”

“Oh, Danny!”

Then my brother dropped his hands, glanced around, and inhaled deeply.

“Ah … ah…” he said. “Is that Virginia I smell? A whiff of stuffy minds? A breath of malicious innuendo? A scent of gossip? And…” He raised a questioning eyebrow. “Do I also detect the gentle aroma of familial obligation?”

I shook my head.

“She’s pretty awful, Danny,” I said.

I took his hand and started to drag him forward. We zigzagged around other passengers and plunged through a terminal door. I could feel Danny’s body stiffening beside me.

“Hold onto me tight, Kiddo,” he said. “Whenever I get into this town, I’m always scared silly that the universe will shrink to the perimeters of dear old Evansville, and I’ll get stuck here. Right now, I want to bolt.”

I held onto him tightly. “Not this time.”

We crossed the taxi lane and strode into the parking lot.

“Kiddo?”

“What, Danny?”

“Promise me something.”

“Shoot.”

“Promise me that Evansville isn’t the entire world.”

I smiled. We went through this every time Danny came home.

“I promise.”

“And that tomorrow, Manhattan will still exist.”

“It will. And soon you’ll be back where everyone is moral, rational, intelligent, and reads The New York Times. We’re only small-minded here in Evansville.”

Danny ignored my sarcasm.

“Promise me that after Ada has shed this mortal coil and is selling Avon products in heaven, you will leave this sappy-syrupy little town.”

I unlocked the passenger side of the car.

“Get in,” I said, walking around the engine compartment and sliding behind the wheel. “I’m not leaving Evansville.”

“I can get you a job co-authoring a web blog with me in … well, anywhere civilized.” Danny persisted. “New York. Boston. Baltimore. Philadelphia.”

“I like my job here.”

“We could be a brother-sister reporting team. Like Woodward and Bernstein. Sacco and Vanzetti. Bonny and Clyde. Sodom and Gomorrah.”

I turned the key in the ignition. “Mr. Nesbitt said that he isn’t going to sell me the paper when he retires. He is going to give it to me. So I won’t have to borrow money to buy The Keystone Banner.”

Danny snorted. “Lucky you! Newspapers are dying all over the country, but kindly Mr. Nesbitt is going to give you one. My sister. Editor-in-chief of the Daily Dirge. Brilliant. You can bring enlightenment to rural America. You can teach the yokels how to…?”

“Danny?”

“What, Hon?”

“You never liked Ada. So why did you come home?”

He didn’t answer for a minute. Eventually, he said, “Why did you want me to come? Why all this concern? Why a trip to the hospital? You never liked her either.”

I pulled up to a stop sign. I rolled down the window. Then I turned to look at my brother. “Damned if I know why, but the old girl suddenly got to me.”

He shrugged. “Me, too. And I don’t know why either.”

“Open your window,” I said. “As long as you’re here, you may as well enjoy spring.”

Danny shrugged. But he rolled down the window.

• • •

 

When we were children, Gram was an unending explosion of unexpected proclamations. One day, she would announce, “I’m going to knock down the silos behind the barn and plant peach trees.” Another, “Your mother is a moron, your father’s a Tom cat, and between the two of them, they haven’t got the brains to peel a potato.” And on a third, “Let them bring the wrath of hell down on this house, they’re terrible parents, and they can’t have you back.”

Mother and father were actors. Very bad actors, I might add, although I have a soft spot for my father, who lacked talent, but could – and often did – charm the pants off a saint. Mother was equally solicitous of gentlemen, but not nearly as charming. Gram had contempt for them both. She called her own daughter “the retarded product of in-breeding.” Gram had married her first cousin. “Marry Northerners,” she always admonished me and Danny. “You don’t want to have idiot offspring like me.”

Gram brought us up.

She was by no means open-minded, but her prejudices were comparatively harmless. She hated lawyers, nutritionists, music teachers, and direct-deposit banking. She was outraged that the government had stopped sending paper social security checks, and equally convinced that one day, the I.R.S. was going to pilfer all the money out of her savings account. She considered recycling the preoccupation of “sissies,” since anyone who lived on a farm had recycled since the day they were born; she refused to shop at chain stores, and she despised zippers.

Other than those amusing idiosyncrasies, Gram was pretty normal. She minded her own business, taught the children of rich Virginians how to ride horses, and considered all five of her daughters – not just our mother – “unfit to raise children, let alone hell.”

So, while my parents bounced back and forth between coasts, determinedly drinking themselves to death, Gram brought us up on her farm. She socialized us with the Best People, sent us to the Best Schools, re-roofed the stable, repaired broken fences, bred horses, and without knowing it, was so strong of character and so valiant of spirit that her mere presence was an unconscious affront to the small mindedness of the town in which we lived. With Gram in the foreground and my mother and father popping up periodically in the background, it would have been pretty hard for Danny and me to grow up with provincial, Evansville outlooks. And we didn’t.

Danny always … always … dreamed of leaving the South.

I always … always … dreamed of writing about it.

And Gram erupted with calculated unpredictability: “Don’t wear your skirts so short. You look like a Northern whore … Don’t read those trashy woman’s magazines … Marry a rich man from Philadelphia … Sit higher in the saddle … Don’t gulp down your food.”

Always impetuous. Always explosive. Always autocratic.

Well … not quite always. There was one exception for whom Gram set aside a little gentleness – her youngest cousin, Ada.

Ada lived in a small apartment over the garage, and she parked her spanking new red Chevrolet Camaro convertible in an unused section of the barn. Every night, she joined us for dinner, and while Danny and I snickered at her cruelly across the table when we were sure she wasn’t looking, Gram would give us looks to kill.

Then, after Ada had retired to the living room to leaf through back issues of Town and Country magazine – Danny says that Evansville is the only place in the entire universe where people actually read Town and Country – Gram would haul us into the kitchen and say sternly but not explosively, “I know Ada is a damn fool, but don’t laugh at her.”

Gram couldn’t get too angry, because sometimes Ada would model a new outfit or a new wig for Gram, and at the sight of her shapeless, beaded black dress against her stony white skin, with a bright smear of Avon’s Neon Orchid lipstick on her mouth and a bouncy, girlish red or blond or black hairpiece balanced precariously on her head, Gram would burst out laughing, too.

Poor Gram. She was sorry about it afterwards, and she always tried not to laugh. But Danny and I never even made the effort. To whatever negligible extent he and I believed in God, we also believed that all of God’s creatures were put on earth for a purpose. Cows, to give milk. Sheep to give wool. Horses to give rides. Ada, to give us someone to laugh at.

It took a lot of growing up and a few funerals to temper our cruelty with … with what? Danny and I still aren’t sure.

Mother and father died a long time ago. Their mutual and collective hearts, livers, and looks gave out at about the same time, and there was really nothing left for them to do but die. Gram died last year. Of nothing specific and everything in general. That’s called old age. She was 97 and had just finished currying one of the horses when down she fell. That’s how she would have wanted to go.

Her last words were to the fourteen-year-old who helped muck out the stalls in exchange for riding lessons.

“Get that shit out of here,” she said, pointing to a mess left behind by Clarion, a chestnut four-year-old. Clarion unexpectedly reared up on his hind legs. Gram’s eyes popped open. She called out joyfully, “Devil!” And her heart stopped.

Gram always did like a spirited horse.

Danny flew home for the funeral.

It was hard on us both.

We agreed not to sell the farm or the horses. I kept my apartment in the village, because I wanted to be near work, and we hired a man to run the place during the week. But I went up to the farm as often as I could.

Ada, of course, continued to live over the garage.

But it was even harder on her, having lost Gram, than on us. Gram may have laughed at her, but over the years, Gram had also given Ada a lot of affection. In some ways, I think that she loved Ada as much as she loved me and Danny.

Out of respect, we supposed, Ada wore her black wig to Gram’s funeral. Danny and I laughed about that afterwards. We had to laugh, or we wouldn’t have been able to leave Gram in such a cold, well-manicured, and inhospitable place. So after the graveside service, we went to Haskell’s Bar. We laughed and we drank. The whole town watched the two of us whooping it up – there is nothing in the world louder than a Southern whisper – and it disapproved.

At times like those, I can almost see Danny’s point about leaving the South.

Almost, but not quite.

I love the smells of springtime here too much. And I love the farm. I love the horses. I love the inky smell of our dilapidated printing press. I love our scandals, our municipal crises, our library sales (a buck a bag), and our Christmas parades, when some awkward teen who grew up on a dairy farm is crowned Snow Queen and gets to sit in the open cab of a fire engine decorated with blue and white fairy lights, and wave cheerfully at the crowd.

I’m a small town girl who cries when she sings the National Anthem, who someday wants to run the town newspaper, and who thinks that small town doesn’t necessarily predicate small mind.

Danny says I’m quixotic.

But he hates Evansville. Always has. Always will.

I don’t. The town can do its worst, but I’m not about to leave it.

After Gram’s funeral, Evansville did do its worst. There were murmurs of Gram having died “accidentally on purpose,” and whispers about what Danny and I might or might not have done to get our hands on the farm. Even poor Ada wasn’t spared. Gram had left her twenty thousand dollars, and people talked. Speculated. Implied. Whispered. I don’t know if any of those despicable innuendos got through Ada’s wigs to her brain. I hope not. But something did. Or maybe it was just the pain and loneliness of living without Gram that weakened her, because less than a year after Gram died, Ada had her stroke.

• • •

Ever since Danny and I came to live on the farm (he was seven and I was six), Ada sold Avon. According to Gram, she had been doing so for many years before we moved in. Even my mother, in rare moments of clarity, joked about Ada having been the Avon Lady as far back as she could remember. But Mother never made jokes about her in Ada’s presence, because she wanted to keep both Ada’s her good will and an open channel to the colognes and moisturizers that she occasionally gave away.

Which reminds me of something creepy. I told Danny about it, and he gave me a look that was, I suppose, the beginning of what eventually resulted in his theory about Avon being Ada’s religion.

What I told him was how, when our mother died and I had to go through her things, I found a plethora of Avon products packed among the clothes in her drawers. Lipsticks, mascara, skin softeners, cream sachets, and a bottle of something called New Good Luck Elephant Cologne, which I didn’t have the courage to open since the gold elephant on the bottle cap stared at me menacingly from under one of my mother’s pink negligées.

Years later when Gram died, it was the same.

Avon bottles and jars stashed all over the place. Sweet Honesty Gentle Moisture Gel at the back of the linen closet. Apple Blossom Foaming Bath Oil in the bottom drawer of a bureau. Blush-lucent Liquid Rogue in an attic trunk. Vita-moist Body Lotion under a saddle blanket in the barn.

I suppose that whenever Avon came out with a new product, Ada, in her excitement, offered it to Gram first. Not because she needed Gram’s money. She didn’t. Ada was the best Avon Lady in Virginia; she was awarded certificates that commended her enterprise, and she won plastic see-through raincoats as prizes for bringing in the most sales. She was even given an all-expense paid trip to New York as a member of Avon’s exclusive President’s Club … whatever that was.

So, Gram didn’t buy cosmetics to fatten Ada’s wallet. It was more that Ada saw herself as the Michelangelo of door-to-door sales. Avon was her Sistine Chapel, and Gram – crusty, crotchety, irritable and iconoclastic Gram, who had never been ridiculous one moment in her life – somehow understood.

Comprehension notwithstanding, it was eerie and absurd to have Avon as a constant thread running through all our tragedies.

After a funeral, I might be folding a dress of my mother’s or Gram’s and putting it in a pile to donate to Goodwill Industries when, on the corner of a closet shelf, my eyes would fall upon a never-opened box of Golden Flamingo Foaming Bath Oil. I would put aside the folded dress, pick up the box, and turn it over to see if there was a tiny red X penned in the lower left-hand corner.

That was a joke of ours when Danny and I were children. We’d been watching Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures or some such program on television. The show was about migrating buffalo and how park rangers shot them with stun guns, stapled tags on their ears, and then sent them off to roam where the skies are not cloudy all day. The following year, the rangers would check the returning herd to see how many had tagged ears, which gave them valuable information about the buffalos’ migratory routes.

So, Danny and I decided to test out a theory we had that nobody actually ever used any of the Avon products they bought from Ada (except my mother, who used them all), but that they gave them away as gifts for Christmas and birthdays, to friends and family who promptly forgot from whom they had received them, and eventually gave those same colognes and cosmetics away themselves.

In an attempt to trace the migratory routes of Ada’s Avon, we marked jars, tubes, and boxes with small red, green, and blue Xs, invisible to everyone but ourselves. We devised an intricate coding system, and year after year, the circuitous routes of our migratory buffalo never failed to amaze us. We trace one bottle of Here’s My Heart Cologne Mist from Ada to Gram to Aunt Charlotte to Aunt Charlotte’s cleaning lady Loretta, to Loretta’s sister Nancy Sue to Nancy Sue’s mother-in-law Dorothy, who had nursed Gram after she broke her leg. Dorothy, for some unknown reason, put that bottle of Here’s My Heart Cologne Mist on a shelf in Gram’s basement, which is where Danny and I found it eight years after it was launched.

Another time, I got a box of New Angel Lace Hostess Soaps at Christmas from the fashion editor of the Evening Eagle, where I worked on Friday afternoons during high school. It had a little red X in the lower left corner. That package was harder to track, because I didn’t want my benefactress to know that I suspected the origins of her gift. But Danny and I persisted, and eventually we discovered that the previous Christmas, the Eagle’s sports editor had given the soaps to the fashion editor. He had gotten them from his

wife, who’d been given the box as a birthday present from Martha Asquith, who’d won it as a tournament bridge prize, which Eileen McDougal, President of the bridge club, had bought from Ada specifically for that purpose.

Danny calls that box “Lassie,” because it found its way home.

This should explain why, when I was sometime going through my mother’s or Gram’s things after a funeral and unexpectedly came upon a bottle, box or tube with a red, green, or blue X on the back of the label, instead of bursting into tears, I would crack up.

Ada’s Avon always made us laugh.

It was against nature that a stone-faced old woman with a clammy, high white forehead, crooked wigs, and shapeless black dresses would slip behind the wheel of a bright red sports car, and tool down the road to peddle beauty.

Gram once told us about Ada’s youth. It was like something out of a Charles Dickens’ novel. She had lived, an only child, with two stern, over-protective, humorless parents. She wasn’t allowed to have friends or to date, wasn’t allowed to wear make-up or pretty dresses, wasn’t permitted to flirt, dance or … one may speculate … dream. When Ada was in her mid-thirties, both of her parents died, leaving her a considerable amount of money and a large Colonial house.

But Ada knew nothing of the world.

So when Gram offered her the apartment over the garage as a home, Ada sold the ancestral mansion, bought a canary yellow Buick convertible with white leather seats, and gratefully moved in.

The move didn’t surprise Gram.

All her life, she had been the closest thing to a friend that Ada had. Gram had anticipated the dependency. The yellow Buick, though, made Gram’s jaw drop, as did Ada’s surprising revelation, three weeks after she moved in, that she had just succeeded in qualifying to become an Avon Lady. That was how Ada always described her job. As though it were like graduating from college and being granted a knighthood at the same time.

Gram had said to her then, “Ada, you’re a damn fool.” But she also bought her first jar of Charisma Cologne Mist, and seeing the look of silly pride in Ada’s eyes, could never quite make herself stop buying Avon products from then on.

I lived with Ada, ate with her, laughed at her, and learned how to drive in her white Thunderbird. Year after year, I watched her drab, shapeless black dresses shuffle into Gram’s living room to read back issues of Town and Country. Even so, it is hard for me to believe that Ada, or anything about her, can have been real, and that everything I’ve just said about her could possibly be true.

I didn’t stop laughing at Ada until her stroke.

She was already in intensive care at the hospital by the time Seth called me. Seth is the man we hired to take care of the farm. After Gram died, Ada took over her kitchen, and when dinner time rolled around but Ada didn’t, Seth checked her apartment over the garage and found her lying on the floor by the telephone.

First he called for an ambulance. Then he called the newspaper for me. I was off poking into a schoolboard scandal and didn’t get the message until three hours later. When I arrived at the hospital, there was nothing I could do.

So I called Danny in New York. I knew he didn’t like Ada, so I hadn’t expected him to fly down, but she was dying, he was my brother, and he had helped me to code the migratory routes of her Avon bottles, so it was suddenly absolutely imperative to me that he know.

In a funny way, Ada was all the two of us had left of our childhoods. No matter what we thought about her brain power, Ada was a marker in our mutual and individual pasts. When she was gone, there would be no one else. And she was going fast.

That was a lonely, lonely feeling.

• • •

I didn’t know what to do with myself before Danny’s plane landed, so I drove out to the farm. And I didn’t know what to do at the farm, because I couldn’t concentrate on anything. So I paced from room to room, picking up magazines and throwing them down again, rearranging the spices on the spice rack, watering already water-logged begonias, and walking to the stable. When my jitters got so bad that Seth asked me to leave, since I was making the horses nervous, I wandered up the driveway and ultimately found myself in Ada’s apartment over the garage.

It wasn’t until I pushed through the door and walked inside that I realized I had only been up there once before, and that I had never been beyond the living room. When Ada was awake, she was always selling Avon or following Gram around. I knew that she returned to her own apartment at night, but that had no meaning to me, since I had hardly ever been up there. I didn’t really think of Ada’s apartment as a place, but more as a state of being. To my mind, Ada just sort of switched off at night. Like a light bulb.

So, it was strange to be up there now. Strange, but not unpleasant. Old-fashioned was the worst I could say about her living room. There was a lot of heavy Victorian furniture; two tired green arm chairs; faded floral rugs; a once-elegant Louis the Somethingth sofa with scrolled arms and legs; and wallpaper that was a rhapsody of trellised roses. The room was comfortable. Not ridiculous, like Ada.

Her bedroom was simple. On her dresser were two framed photographs of her parents, three wigs placed on Styrofoam heads, and a very nice set of silver hair brushes. The bed had a canopy. The eyelet bedspread was crisply ironed, clean, and white. The walls of the room were covered with framed certificates, acknowledging Ada’s prowess at selling Avon, and in her closet were several unopened boxes. They contained an iron, the two plastic raincoats I mentioned before, an electric blanket, and an automatic percolator. All prizes, I supposed, that Ada had won selling Avon.

I walked into the bathroom. Nothing out of the ordinary. Black and white tiles, an enormous claw-footed tub, a toilet, a sink, and a medicine cabinet. On the wall beside the medicine cabinet, though, was something I hadn’t expected. A framed, needlepoint poem:

 

Let me live in my house by the side of the road

Where the race of men go by;

They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,

Wise, foolish – so am I.

Then why should I sit in the scorner’s seat,

Or hurl the cynic’s ban?

Let me live in my house by the side of the road

And be a friend to man.

 

In the right-hand corner of the needlepoint was stitched the poet’s name: Sam Walter Foss.

I stood by the sink and read the poem again.

I wondered if Ada knew what it meant; I wondered why it was hanging on a wall in her bathroom; I wondered if she had regained consciousness; I wondered if she was dead. Then I couldn’t stand it anymore, raced downstairs, jumped into my car, and sped to the airport. Danny wasn’t due for another two hours, but I had to wait somewhere where nothing meant anything to me. Even so, as I sat in the terminal watching plane after plane disgorge passengers, a question kept poking at my brain: “Did Ada know that she was ridiculous?”

Did Ada know that she was ridiculous?

It was the poem … the note of gentle self-mockery in it … that made me wonder. And it wasn’t until I saw Danny approaching through the security gate that my mind finally relented and left me alone

When we got to the hospital, Ada’s doctor advised us that she was out of intensive care. Weak, but conscious. The left side of her body was paralyzed and she couldn’t talk, but she could see, hear, and understand. There was no chance of recovery, but she might remain stable for days, weeks, even years. And yes, it was a hell of a way to live. The doctor would allow us to see Ada for ten minutes, but then we had to leave. He would have a nurse show us to her room.

I took a deep breath.

We walked in.

For the first time and only time in my life, Ada did not look ridiculous. Her face was paler and bonier than I had expected, and she looked old. Not funny-Ada old. Old-people old. Dying old. Seeing her like that, her head supine on a pillow, thin tendrils of gray hair hanging sadly around her face, I felt a sudden sense of outrage. Ada would not want anyone to see her like this.

Where was her beaded black dress? Where was her lipstick? Where was her raven black wig?

I took a step forward and Ada saw me. She couldn’t move, but her eyes filled with tears. I rushed forward to take her hand. Her right hand. The one that wasn’t paralyzed. Ada squeezed my hand so hard, I knew how glad …how desperately glad ... she was to see us.

Danny stood by my side, and Ada’s eyes shifted back and forth between us. God, I wondered, how can she possibly love us, her tormentors, so much? Hadn’t she known that we’d always laughed at her? Can she possibly not have known?

As we sat there saying nothing, I felt a wild urge to dash out of the hospital, dive into my car, race to the farm, and speed back with one of Ada’s wigs. Ada would be my Samson. If Delilah had been able to

reattach Samson’s hair, he would have gotten all his old strength back. Right? So if we put one of Ada’s wigs on her head, the helpless old woman in the hospital bed would disappear, and we’d get our foolish Ada back.

I would have done it, too. Except for the thought that a visitor might see a girlish wig framing Ada’s paralyzed face and laugh at her. That would be unacceptable. Ada was ours. I did not want anyone laughing who did not understand.

After ten minutes, the nurse made us leave.

“Let’s go to Haskell’s,” Danny said.

I gunned the gas pedal.

• • •

our fourth beer, my brother said, “Ever since you called me in New York, I’ve been thinking about Ada.”

“Me, too.”

“I’ve been thinking that perhaps, in her own ridiculous way, Ada was dignified.”

I wasn’t sure I agreed, so I said nothing.

“Not only dignified,” my brother went on, “but gutsy.” He dabbed a finger into a puddle of spilled beer on our tabletop and began to swirl it around. “By the time her parents died, Ada was already old and ugly.”

“Only thirty-five, Danny. And not ugly. Just …” I searched my mind for the right word. “Homely.”

He ignored me.

“So why did she do it, Jo Ellen?”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

“Why did she leave the comparative safety of Gram’s farm to enter the tumult and turbulence of Real Life? Where did she get the grit? How did she summons the courage?”

I knew that Danny didn’t expect an answer, so I waited.

Finally, he banged a fist against tabletop and announced, “Avon!”

As off-handed as he had been about her at the airport, he was deadly serious now.

“By becoming the Avon Lady,” Danny said, “Ada sidestepped the snubs which surely would have come from Gram’s neighbors, and she found another way into their homes. Over jars of eye goop and night cream, she could gossip with socialites, bank managers, manicurists, and librarians about Dorothy Widget’s facelift, Elvira Ludlow’s wedding, Judy Delford’s divorce, and why Jesse Bamberger’s husband, who never took a flying lesson in his life, was building an airplane in his barn.”

Danny’s eyes glistened, and the words kept tumbling out.

“For Ada, selling Avon was more than a job, it was a sacred mission. An act of faith. A holy crusade. Because she sold Avon, Ada had to make sales calls; because she made sales calls, Ada had to have a car; and because she needed a car, Ada could buy snazzy new convertibles every few years. It was only by selling Avon that Ada could live as a peer among peers. No longer the sorry spinster her parents had created, but a modern woman. A creature of the here and now. An entrepreneur. And…” Danny’s face

beamed with the joy of revelation, “The wigs, Kiddo. The wigs! Before Avon, Ada never had an excuse to get all dolled up. To wear lipstick. To buy wigs. To…”

I was excited, too.

But only for a second. Then I remembered. Calmly and with a heavy heart, I said, “Courage or no courage, Danny. Wigs or no wigs, when Ada got ‘all dolled up,’ as you call it, she looked ridiculous.”

My brother shook his head.

“Maybe to the two miserable children who grew up tormenting her on a farm, but she didn’t look ridiculous to old Mrs. Arthritic Fingers, who had been living alone since her sister died; or to young Mrs. Newlywed, whose husband drove an eighteen-wheeler cross-country six days a the week; or to Miss Aged Beauty Queen, desperate to brag to someone about singing My Way in a beauty pageant forty-years-ago. To those solitary souls, the Avon Lady was a godsend, as eager to listen to their stories as a child hearing a fairytale for the first time.”

Danny pushed aside his beer mug, dropped his elbows on the table, and locked eyes with me.

“When Ada’s clients talked, Ada felt alive. Through them, she was able to experience everything that she missed growing up. She devoured their photo albums, their newspaper clippings, and the drawings their grandchildren made of polka dot houses and three-legged cows. Ada’s customers didn’t care if she was selling lipstick, hand lotion, or silly pink-bowed bottles of perfume. And it didn’t matter if they ever even used what they bought, because what they got from the Avon Lady, and what they gave back to Ada was...”

Danny paused.

I hurriedly filled in the blank.

“More precious than gold?”

My brother shrugged and said softly, “Sometimes, trite is true.”

We were silent for a few minutes. Then, I was struck by a thought.

“Danny,” I asked. “Were you ever in her apartment?”

“Dozens of times.”

I was surprised.

“Why?”

“Ada was too dumb to change a light bulb, so I had to replace the one over the sink in her bathroom a few times a year.”

“Oh,” I said happily. “Then you saw it, too.”

“Saw what?””

“The poem.”

“What poem?”

“‘Let me live in my house by the side of the road.’”

Danny nodded. He recited, “‘Let me live in my house by the side of the road … where the race of men go by.’”

I clapped my hands. I was delighted. I was disheartened. I was happy. I was glum.

“Oh, Danny,” I said. “This is all so ludicrous. And so sad. What are you feeling right now?”

“Right this minute? I’m feeling sorry that I’ll never see one of Ada’s wigs floating in a big bowl of gumbo soup.”

I was shocked. “Just a few seconds ago, you were praising Ada’s dignity and courage.”

“I was.”

“Yet you meant what you just said about the soup?”

“Absolutely.”

“If Ada lives, Danny, will you still laugh at her?”

“Only if she recovers completely.”

“What about the poem in her bathroom? Do you think it was Ada’s credo?”

Danny shook his head.

“I’d be more inclined to think that it was Avon’s credo.”

I sighed.

“I’ll call the hospital,” I said.

• • •

Ada died sometime between our fourth and fifth beers. My brother decided to fly home that night. I drove him to the airport.

“Will you come back for Christmas?” I asked.

“Only if you promise not to make me get on one of those damn horses.”

“Hell no. There’s nothing like a brisk ride on a cold winter morning. You’ll ride all right. Roll down your window, Danny.”

He rolled down the window. Then he stretched out his legs as far forward as the car would permit and added, “I’ve been doing some more thinking.”

“About Ada?”

“Uh huh. I think we should bury her with all of her certificates and wigs. I think she should be wearing her plastic raincoat, and…”

““Danny!”

“Egyptians buried Pharaohs with all their loot because they knew the old guys would need it on the other side. Ada deserves at least as good a send-off.”

“That’s not funny.”

He reached over, patted my hand, and said, “Okay, Kiddo. Maybe just a small tube of shower gel with a red X in the left-hand corner.”

I grunted and pulled into a space near the entrance to the airport parking lot.

We got out of the car, but neither of us was wanted the evening to end. So we leaned against the front bumper and looked up. Danny closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.

“Winter honeysuckle and exhaust fumes,” he said. “Not necessarily a bad mix.”

It was a nice feeling to be there with my brother. Jets zoomed back and forth overhead. A soft Virginia breeze ruffled our hair.

A little turbulence. A little peace.

Danny opened his eyes. He glanced at his watch, pushed away from the car, and said, “Time to go.”

We started across the parking lot.

“Know what?” He said. We were walking slowly.

“What?”

“I’m going to miss Ada.”

I sighed. “She was a fool.”

“A damn fool, but…” and then he began to quote from the poem. “‘Why should I sit in the scorner’s seat?’”

Our eyes met. I continued, “‘…or hurl the cynic’s ban?’”

Danny grinned.

“‘Let me live in my house by the side of the road…’”

I grinned, too.

“‘And be a friend to man

 

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2016

Originally published in The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY - evesun.com Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com.